A Poetry Interview

Katherine Barrett interviews Poet Tricia McCallum

Katherine Barrett is the founder and editor-in-chief of Understorey Magazine, which publishes literary writing and visual art by and about Canadian women. She has also served as Editor with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project and Demeter Press.


KB: You’ve just completed your third collection of poems called Icarus Also Flew. You’ve also published many poems in journals, anthologies and magazines. Can you tell us how you came to poetry?

TM: I was always a huge reader. In fact my greatest regret is that I never found a job that would pay me to read books in air conditioning. It was from a very young age that I started writing down my own stories. And reading them to anyone who would listen.

Later I paid my bills with freelance writing because, as Garrison Keillor said, “Burglary beats poetry when it comes to making money.” But I wrote poems in my off hours, finding homes for them where I could. Creating them is as much a part of me as my red hair or my left-handedness.

Poetry has helped me figure out what I think. About this life of mine, these lives of ours. I don’t think I would have navigated my life half as well without it.

Poetry is my church.  It’s where I have found my courage.


KB: Your poems entice through telling details from around the world: tiger balm in Kuala Lumpur, a motel in Cape May, a record shop in Ontario. Does this reflect your personal travelling or work experience? How do you think a keen sense of observation helps to inspire writers?

TM: All those places are ones I have actually been. I did dispense tiger balm to the Cambodian refugees I helped return by the planeload to Canada following Pol Pot. I did in fact stay in a rundown quirky motel in Cape May for a period of time and come to know some of the residents. A boyfriend of my youth, in a very small Canadian town, once took me by the hand into a record store for a birthday surprise. All of these pieces, and so many others of mine, come straight from my experiences. You’ll find a pretty clear map of my life in my writing. Case in point: I wrote one about the trials, nay, horrors, of working as a freelance wedding photographer, which I did for a time to bolster my writing income.

Observation may be the one thing indispensable to a poet. It might all just come down to noticing the details, if not in fact being entranced by them.

My poetry is not really simple, I don’t think, but it is about commonplace things. I’m not an abstract thinker. I’m interested in ordinary life, the so-called mundane details that make up our days. But to me they are not mundane. To me they are rich in possibility, nuance.

To me, they’re magic.


KB: You say your poems are simple but your work does broach complex universal themes, particularly loss, remembrance and celebration of life. What attracts you to these ideas?

TM: The poet Shelly said “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” I could not hope to express it better. Loss, in all its shapes, stages and guises propels so much of what writers create.

I remember someone once asked me, impatiently, “Why don’t you ever write a happy poem?”

Happiness is never fodder for me in this way. When I’m happy I can generally be found out and about, munching on Snickers bars, reading anything and everything within reach, including the Hollywood rags, and wasting inordinate amounts of time, deliciously.


KB: Two of your poems in your second book The Music of Leaving have won the Goodreads.com Poetry Contest. And you won the contest for a third time with your poem “The Things I Learned as a Bartender.” Can you tell us about that process? How does winning a contest influence a writer’s career?

TM: My three wins in goodreads.com poetry competitions have been amazing kick starters for my writing and offered incredible exposure. It was thrilling to win each time and so heartening, because the winning compositions are ultimately voted for online by goodreads members themselves from among a group of five finalists chosen by a panel of judges, all fine poets themselves.

All of this puts me in illustrious company. This contest attracts amazingly gifted writers.

It was in a bio of Lisa Genova’s, the author of the novel Still Alice, where I first learned about the power of goodreads.com, its astounding reach and potential for writers. Genova self-published that book, after being unable to find a publisher for it, astounding, I know, and she used goodreads as one of the ways she promoted it. It ended up a bestseller, of course, and then a brilliant movie.


KB: How will you celebrate Poetry Month come April?

TM: With very good Scotch. (Actually, tea, but Scotch sounds so much more … literary.)

That, and setting myself the challenge of writing a new poem every day in April, even if it’s only a raw draft. I scribble a new idea down in one go and hope that it eventually morphs into something worthwhile.

Oh, and checking my Inbox with my first coffee alongside for poems that come to me from all over. I can’t imagine a better start to a day.  The coffee sharing equally stellar status…




Beyond the Robot

For the Robot

to write a poem
it must survive a kindergarten schoolyard trauma, a sunburn on an overcast day,
bury, in a small paper box that once held a bar of soap,
the thumbnail-sized frog that was once a polliwog it caught at Mrs. Anderson’s
pond whose tail fell off and hind legs emerged like quotation marks & had
been kept in the rinsed Best Foods mayonnaise jar

must worry a tobacco-stained grandfather’s hand
run over a jackrabbit on I-40 in the Arizona desert
get divorced
burn dinner
confess its sins
suffer food poisoning
refuse to eat blue M & M’s
hang, on a sweet-breezy July, laundry in Fishtail, Montana—eye the distant Sawtooth
Mountains & hum “Waltzing Matilda” which it learned from Miss Vineyard
in second grade

must fear thunder
rush to focus its binoculars on the wintering Lazuli Bunting
tell white lies to be kind
shout “Heavens to Betsy!”
be part of a standing ovation
endure recurring nightmares
question the crossing guard about the origin of “fingers crossed”
develop calluses as it learns to play the twelve-string banjo
have its hair smell of campfire smoke
swat, during a humid-summer dusk, at mosquitoes on a dock full of splintered
cypress wood at Half Moon Lake in Eau Claire, Wisconsin

forever dislike Brussels sprouts because it overcooked them and they smelled like
rotten eggs
must watch wind
weep at a funeral
lose anything
imagine infinity
doubt God’s existence
die a little every day
then, perhaps—

~~ Alison Bailey

—from Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge
September 2023, Artist’s Choice

He could not wait to show me…

Ohio Dove

She lay at our feet with a metal arrow
through her chest, the arrow angled in
the ground not far from the lilac
nest where she’d been sitting.
Because he owned the bow, or that
he went by his last name,
or that his peach fuzz had darkened,
Cunningham said he was taking my turn.

He could not wait to show me
how it’s done, the killing.
If only quick, like turning off a lamp.
The dove lay gasping in the too sudden
present tense. Cunningham pressed
his shoe down hard,

then took the arrow out from her. Because
I’d not had my heart broken this close up
before, I held the bird extra, said good aim
then placed her back in the lilac bush
so no one could see. I heard my mother’s
dinner bell in the distance wringing
the dry air in my throat. I walked home and ate all
her steamed kale, because it was good for me.

—from Rattle #79, Spring 2023

Mark Rubin: “I write because it’s a way of rendering the heartaches that come from being alive. As a certified curmudgeon, I have an edgy, ongoing sense of wonder, if not reverence, for small things in the natural world, and big things that move through me as a result. I am most happy when I can get out of my own way.”

Gordon Lightfoot - Sundown

Ring Them Bells

I share here a remembrance of Gordon Lightfoot, written after seeing him perform back in 2012 on a rain-soaked evening in Toronto’s Massey Hall. I never sought to have it published. I somehow knew it should wait until now.

Textbook weather for Gordon’s concert this evening: rain-slicked streets, brisk winds, classic moody November evening in downtown Toronto. His band was minimalist, as is his wont. To wit, lead guitar, bass, drummer, keyboards, and himself. None of them under 60. I’d seen a couple of them on stage with him many times before.

Gord struts out with his characteristic long stride, guitar at his hip– on the stroke of eight bells, of course — to thunderous applause, seeming still a little shy and embarrassed by it all, amazingly. (He even joked about the night before how, because of the city’s subway breakdown he’d had to start eight minutes later. Eight whole minutes. Oh the horror, he said. And we all knew he was only half kidding.

Opened with Did She Mention My Name? Closed with Blackberry Wine. In between, everything from If You Could Read My Mind to A Painter Passing Through.

The crowd was quiet (save for the one requisite (by then) shout of “We love you, Gord!”  very attentive (dare I say, Canadian?), reflective, appreciative, almost conspiratorial, you know that feeling Gord (and Gord alone) inspires in hometown crowds? It was so obvious everyone there was delighted to see him back onstage for another go.

Yes, he is frail, ravaged, bone thin, and easily looks his age (71). Actually, he looks like any of a dozen down on their luck guys who used to hang around (seemingly in rotation) outside one of the hotels in the small town where I lived as a child. His voice wavers and falters from time to time and he whispers when he should shout, but no matter. His spirit is fully intact. His delivery is so evocative, so exquisite, he reminds you with each outing that he is the one who wrote the stuff – that no one gets it like he does — and no one, of any age or stage, will ever do it better. Michael Buble, take a seat. And hush.

We did hear at least a few pins drop at Massey Hall that night, especially during Song for a Winter’s Night. (He rarely does that tune and it was utterly bewitching.) His rendition of Step Back (one of my top five of his) was rollicking, everyone up and rocking, what a great tune that is to move to, and then he headed into Early Morning Rain. Wistful, evocative, iconic, all.

Let it go/Let it happen like it happened once before… from the song Shadows. Another captivating rendition. This one in particular brought to mind Dylan’s comment about Lightfoot: “Whenever I hear a Gordon Lightfoot song, I hope it never ends.”

His banter with the crowd was so relaxed, so unscripted, he charmed the boots off all of us. He riffed randomly, about writing songs on airplanes, the perfect place for it, he says, with the juxtaposition of stars above, cities below… getting his “shoulders lowered” as a boy at the town barber shop in Orillia, and his joy at being “home” and playing for us again.

A gentleman, pure and simple. And a poet non pareil. By the end, he even makes you believe his lustrous words: “Everything will be fine by and by.”

A legendary story about Lightfoot resulted from a concert he did long ago in his hometown of Orillia. A young man in the audience was hit by a flying bottle and had all of his front teeth knocked out. Lightfoot heard about it and went to visit the young boy, on his own, no fanfare. Before he left he gave him a check to cover all his medical expense.

The fire is dying now, my lamp is growing dim
The shades of night are liftin’
The morning light steals across my windowpane
Where webs of snow are driftin’
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
Upon this winter night with you.

 Lightfoot didn’t care for interviews. Apparently, he was rather shy. But no matter. His songs tell us everything we need to know.

Listen to The Affair on Eight Avenue, for me always his most exquisite song.  https://youtu.be/KTu_Uu0TgTQ

I will miss you, Gord. We all will.

The Weight Of It All

Life’s not hard enough,
so let’s invent a foe so fearless,
So shameless,
That it doesn’t toy with your dreams
So much as mocks them.
A tyrant that hands you back, ravaged,
After it’s done its worst.
And even though we call on everything we know
In defense,
Science, all of it, yes,
The tiny powdered capsules of hope, thrice daily,
The temples gelled, the paddles clamped securely,
Still we are brought to our knees.
We may summon the gods, too.
If there be such things,
And if there are,
Now would be the perfect time
For them to show up.

Writer and Poet

Tricia McCallum profile

Tricia McCallum

Always be a poet. Even in prose.
Charles Baudelaire.

In essence I am a storyteller who writes poems. Put simply, I write the poems I want to read.[…]

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